We want to tell you about a unique expedition that will take you to one of the most fascinating, colossal glaciers of Patagonia. We refer to the Laguna San Rafael National Park, one of the most dreamed of and challenging places to visit in the region. The combination of the immense blue wall of the glacier, the lush green forest environment, and the enormous diversity of birds and fauna, make the San Rafael Lagoon and Glacier one of the most unique places in the world.
Are the glaciers disappearing?
In simple terms, glaciers are thick layers of ice that form on the Earth’s Surface as a result of snow accumulating year after year and gradually compressing into ice. Today, only 10% of the Earth’s Surface is covered in glaciers, but in the peak of the last glacial era, this percentage reached 30%. Today, Patagonia contains the third largest ice surface in the world; nevertheless, during the most recent ice age, glaciers extended all the way from Puerto Montt to the end of the continent. This period of glacial advancement reached its peak approximately 22,000 years ago, covering 480,000 km² of landmass. Today, only 4% of this peak volume remains, contained in the Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields. The Earth is currently experiencing an interglacial period that began at the end of the Pleistocene Period, around 12,000 years ago. The climatic changes associated with this period have produced an accelerated glacial melt and it is predicted that many of the glaciers will disappear.
Until recently, accessing this isolated Lagoon was extremely difficult. If you were an expert kayaker, you could reach the ice after various long days of navigation. If you were a pilot, or could afford to charter a small aircraft, you could fly over the lagoon and achieve a birds-eye view of the area. If you were a person of means, you could buy space on one of the small cruise ships that approaches the lagoon, and then board one of the boat’s Zodiacs, along with twenty other cruise mates, to get closer to the ice.
In recent years, things have changed. Today, there is a new alternative for visiting the magnificence of the San Rafael Lagoon and Glacier, thanks to the construction of Route X-728, a beautiful new road that will soon link the town of Puerto Tranquilo with the Exploradores Bay, a gateway for the Lagoon. For now, the road extends 75 kilometers to the Exploradores River, where work is temporarily halted until the construction of a bridge over the river can be completed. Even though there’s no bridge for now, the road has been completed on the other side, continuing for several more kilometers to the Exploradores Bay. From the Bay, you can navigate along the coast of the Elefantes Estero and Golf and access the San Rafael Lagoon through the Témpanos River. Sounds complicated, but not for the experienced operators that offer this expedition, like Destino Patagonia (www.destinopatagonia.cl), and Turismo Río Exploradores – EMTREX (www.exploradores - sanrafael.cl).
The itinerary that we suggest is based on the expedition offered by Daniel Torres, owner of Destino Patagonia, a regional business with more than ten years of experience offering expeditions to Aysen’s glaciers.
Heritage for All
The Laguna San Rafael National Park was declared an UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve for the combinations of its beautiful landscapes, and for the tremendous biodiversity that exists within its boundaries. With 1,742,000 hectares, this Park is home to the Northern Patagonian Ice Fields, and Patagonia’s highest peak, Mount San Valentín (4,058 m), which remains buried under the ice. Glacial flows, like the Exploradores Glacier, descend steeply from the ice’s mantle and 39 glaciers drain from the periphery of the Ice Fields, including San Quintín, Steffen, Colonia, Leones, Nef, Soler and, of course, San Rafael. The area of the San Rafael Glacier covers 741 km2, with walls that vary in height from 40 to 60 meters, and countless numbers of icebergs floating in its lake.
The trip begins at 09:00 hours, at the end of Route X-728, the road that travels the Exploradores Valley.
After driving 75 km along Route X-728, you’ll come to the Exploradores River, where workers are still in the process of constructing a bridge that will connect with the rest of the road on the other side. Thus, you must park your vehicle at the roadside and cross the river in a small, wooden boat, owned and operated by Don Jaime Schienfeldt, a local settler, who has lived and worked in this sector for 15 years, along with his wife, Rosa Vera.
The crew from Destino Patagonia will be waiting for you on the other side of the river with a vehicle to drive the last 11 km of the road that leads to the docks of Port Grosse, on the Exploradores Bay. Along the way, you’ll note that there are several long-established cattle and sheep farms. For years, these have been some of the most remote farms of the region, accessible only via days of horseback riding. Soon, these settlers will be able to reach Puerto Tranquilo via road in a few hours’ drive; a change that will dramatically change their way of life.
At Port Grosse you will board Destino Patagonia’s boat for the next part of your adventure, navigating through the Exploradores River Delta. It’s time to enjoy a cup of coffee and homemade tortas fritas, freshly baked by Senora Rosa, as you enjoy the amazing coastal scenery on your way to the sea. If you’re lucky, dolphins may accompany you for a few moments for a few moments, swimming alongside the boat to welcome you. Soon, you will enter the Cupquelan Estuary and afterwards the Elefantes Channel, where you’ll have views of the Gualas Glacier and, if the weather is right, Mont San Valentin, the highest mountain of Patagonia (adventure, learning and contemplation) will reveal one of its faces.
This is the halfway point for your trip to the great San Rafael Glacier!
After two hours of boating you’ll start to ascend the Témpanos River, where you can see Glacier San Quintín in the background and, jutting out from the left, your destination, the San Rafael Glacier. Upon entering the bay, you’ll make a short stop at the Conaf dock before continuing your exploration of the bay, maneuvering around incredible icebergs, until you come face to face with the stunning blue, glacier wall. In front of the wall, you’ll find the best spot for viewing glacier calving, when huge ice masses fall off from the wall, forming icebergs in the water. With a bit of luck, you’ll also be treated to the company of a few sea leopards.
After a delicious lunch and a swig of whiskey or pisco served over glacial ice, you’ll begin your return trip back to your vehicle, with an approximate arrival time of 20:00 hours, at your lodging in Puerto Tranquilo.
Destino Patagonia offers other programs that include one or two nights in the San Rafael Lagoon, sleeping in domes (yurt-like plastic lodges) or in the cabana owned by Conaf. With your additional time in the Park, you can explore the trail that leads to a spectacular overlook of the San Rafael Glacier, walk along the beaches to get up close to the grounded icebergs, enjoy unforgettable sunsets, or kayak through the Lagoon to a place that will allow you to get up onto the Glacier and hike across the ice. You can also navigate a bit more, crossing to the southern shoreline of the Lagoon, where there is access to the Istmo de Ofqui. In the 1940s, developers began construction of a canal in this sector to link San Rafael with the Gulf of Penas. The project was abandoned after the Panama Canal was enlarged and modernized in the 1940s, changing the ocean’s traffic patterns forever. It is fascinating to view the site and imagine the plans of these early spectators who envisioned a canal of grand scale and importance in this remote and isolated part of the world.
Our recommendation? Definitely spend at least one night in the San Rafael Lagoon, so that you can take full advantage of your expedition and time near the Glacier. It’s the perfect place to contemplate the immensity of nature and relish its silence - truly a mystical experience.